‘Flypaper Act’ | ‘to be under, or on, the flypaper’

The British-English slang term Flypaper Act designated the Prevention of Crimes Act.
—Cf. also the Cat-and-Mouse Act, popular designation of the Prisoners (Temporary Discharge for Ill-health) Act, 1913.

The term Flypaper Act occurs in the letter that one Mr. A. J. Dawson wrote “in a London paper”—as reprinted in The Daily Express (Dublin, County Dublin, Ireland) of Monday 23rd July 1906:

Among the points of recent improvement in our control of the parasite race we breed and import I would place […] the application (quite recent) of one of the most serviceable Acts of Parliament ever passed, which is known to the world at large as the Prevention of Crimes Act, to the police as the Fly-Paper Act, and to the professed criminal by phrases too violently and obscenely vituperative for reproduction in the columns of this journal.

In Glossary of Crooks’ “Argot”, published in On Top of the Underworld: The Personal Reminiscences of Ex-Divisional Detective-Inspector Charles E. Leach Late of New Scotland Yard (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Co., Ltd., 1933), Charles E. Leach (born 1881), a third-generation London police officer, recorded:

Flypaper Act: Prevention of Crimes Act.

This gave rise to the slang phrase to be under the flypaper, meaning to be subject to the Prevention of Crimes Act—as explained in The Southern Daily Echo (Southampton, Hampshire, England) of Wednesday 17th October 1906:

A detective, in giving evidence in a case at the Mansion House yesterday, stated that on his arrest the prisoner said: “You know me; I’m known all over London like a bad penny. I’m under the fly-paper.” In answer to the magistrate, the detective explained that “under the fly-paper” means that a man is under the Prevention of Crimes Act—the Act sticks to him for seven years—that is, if after a conviction upon indictment at the Sessions or Assizes a man is again found committing or attempting to commit a felony within seven years of his discharge, he is liable, under the Prevention of Crimes Act, to twelve months’ hard labour.

'under the flypaper' - The Southern Daily Echo (Southampton, Hampshire, England) - 17 October 1906

There also existed the variant phrase to be on the flypaper, which Frederick Martyn recorded in A Burglar in Baulk (1910)—as quoted by Eric Partridge in A Dictionary of the Underworld: British and American (Routledge, 2015):

On the flypaper: Subject to the Crimes Prevention Act.

The phrase occurs in The Gilt Kid (Jonathan Cape – London, 1936), a novel set in London, particularly in the underworld of Soho, by the British author James Curtis (born Geoffrey Basil Maiden – 1907-77):

‘She’s got a bloke, a regular customer, get me, who pays the rent of the flat and floats in for a bit of under occasionally, but most of the time she’s on the bash round the flash bars trying to see what she can pick up on the side.’
‘Oh, I get you. On the make all the time. One of the wide girls.’
‘That’s right. Well, what with the steamer she’s got for regular and the odd ones she picks up she don’t do so bad, I should cocoa. Got a bit of stuff hanging around her drum she has. Red stuff, jewellery, furs and the ready. She keeps the dough under the carpet in her bedroom.’
‘My god, you got the gaff weighed up good.’
‘Not half. A bloke drummed it for me and put me wide. Let her pick him up one night and she lumbered him home. And while he’s there he takes a butcher’s 1. We was going to do it together, but he gets nicked for suspect and being on the flypaper, he gets a stretch in the Ville 2.’

1 In rhyming slang, butcher’s, short for butcher’s hook, means look.
2 The slang term the Ville designates Pentonville Prison in London.

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